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Reading My Father

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William Styron, of course, has already told the world much about his own inner darkness. In addition to his three highly acclaimed novels (“Lie Down in Darkness” in 1951; “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967; and “Sophie’s Choice” in 1979), Styron was also the author of “Darkness Visible,” a 1990 nonfiction account detailing his horrific battle with depression.

But Alexandra, Styron’s youngest child of four, has issues of her own to hash out.

Who was this man? “At times querulous and taciturn, cutting and remote, melancholy when he was sober and rageful when in his cups, he inspired fear and loathing in us a good deal more often than it feels comfortable to admit.” That’s how Styron remembers her father’s domestic side. While his colleagues recall a friend and critic who was “patient, thoughtful, and enormously generous,” she feels stuck with the memory of a man who entertained himself by telling his little daughter that he was going to sell her pony to a glue factory and by suggesting that the “imbeciles” in a nearby state institution might escape and “do vile things” to her.

Styron never really succeeds in solving the mystery that was her father. She traces him from his lonely Southern boyhood (his mother died young and his stepmother openly disdained him), on through his early career struggles (when it was his own adoring father who kept him afloat), to his years of great success (she was 12 when “Sophie’s Choice” was published) and then, sadly – on to the breakdowns in 1985 and 2000 that finally incapacitated him.

She offers interesting insights into the affections and experiences that helped to shape him, including his great love for his father, his disaffection with the South and its attitudes, and his all-consuming need to prove himself as a novelist.

But she remains puzzled as to the cause of his worst anguish. “Did my father’s depression steal his creative gift?” she wonders. “Or was it the other way around, an estrangement from his muse driving him down in increments till he hit rock bottom? There’s no single answer, no simple trajectory.”

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